The Anime series Attack on Titan. A century of hiding from man-eating titans, where sacrificing hundreds of thousands of people to 'reclaim' land from the titans (i.e. get slaughtered en masse) is a practical idea, where no territory taken by the giants has ever been reclaimed by humans, where it is normal to be Eaten Alive. Things have gotten more hopeful with the revelation of Eren's Titan powers and the fact that they recaptured Trost from the titans. There is also an ongoing plan to recapture Wall Maria from the titans.
In the Anime series Mobile Suit Gundam starts off as this. Zeon was effectively fighting a hopeless war vs the Federation forces, with all of their big cards pretty much played from the start.The stalemate is the sign things is going to go downhill for them. Other Hopeless Wars in Gundam include Omni vs Zaft (where Omni have to resort to suicidal last measures just to stave Zaft off and could barely even hold on during the events of Destiny), Kataron vs A-Laws and the Federation vs Cosmo Babylon. The losing side being the former respectively.
The war in Mobile Suit Gundam wasn't even a long one. Less than a year into it at the start of the series. Over half the human race had already been wiped out. It's known in later series as the "One Year War", which saw the devastation of Earth, the genocide of several colony clusters, and a final death toll somewhere around 5 billion.
The entire point of Saikano is that one of these is causing the death of the planet. Chise pulls a planet-wide Mercy Kill to keep everyone from suffering any more; the series is exactly two characters away from a full-on Shoot the Shaggy Dog.
In every version of Space Battleship Yamato (both the original series, the 2010 movie and the remake), the series starts with Humans fighting one against Gamilas, with Earth being devastated by planetary bombs and Earth ships being hopelessly outclassed by Gamilas' ones (to drive home the point, the original series, the movie and the remake all open with a battle scene in which Earth ships are outnumbered by a 2-1 margin, Gamilas' weapons are one-hit kills on most Earth ships, and Earth weapon shots bounce away from Gamilas ships).
Almost every iteration of the Days of Future Past storyline in X-Men. In the future, the world is overrun. The Sentinels have Turned Against Their Masters so even baseline humans aren't safe. Someone is sent to the past Terminator style because there is no restoring the world in the future. Many big-name X-Men who are usually immune to even temporary Comic Book Death in the present are long dead. As the present characters rush to prevent it from happening, the future characters fight to give them "long enough" to do it, as opposed to winning, which is often accepted from the beginning as impossible. The animated versions make it less bad - but less bad doesn't mean "good," it means "all the Family-Unfriendly Death must take place offscreen, and we're spreading the storyline over long enough that we can't Kill 'em All straight away, but it's still a miserable world to live in and not letting it ever come to be is humanity's only hope."
For humanity, millions of people have become War Refugees over the course of the war thanks to the barrier, which annihilates any human or human-made object in its way (not even leaving dust behind). Not only that, but the barrier is nigh-unstoppable, and every human knows it. It took a minor miracle for the PHL and the American military to even delay the thing, and the world is painfully aware, to the point that the U.S President has resigned himself to a Godzilla Threshold plan that could destroy all life on Earth, with the small hope it will at least do something to the barrier, even as it kills them all. But now that the Canon Equestrians have arrived, it may not be so hopeless anymore.
For TCB!Equestria/the Solar Empire, humanity's determination to fight their ponification crusade and the sheer brutality of their more advanced weaponry has caused a massive loss in lives, rendering the Empire's old fashioned tactics for the Royal Guards and Zerg Rush usage of the newfoals impractical. On top of that, the massive influx of newfoals has put a huge strain on Equestria's economy, and morale is so low that only fanaticism, propaganda and terror are the only things just barely keeping the Empire afloat. Plus more natural born ponies (at least those that haven't been fully brainwashed) are starting to question Queen Celestia's campaign and are either defecting to humanity or get thrown to the gulags.
Subverted in the Terminator franchise (at least the first one) as there is a Hopeless Robot War fought in the future — hopeless for the robots, hence the time travel.
The war was still quite brutal, and bleak for the humans though. As a good chunk of humanity got hit by several Depopulation Bombs.
Terminator: Salvation shows that time traveling has actually made things worse.
The T-800s come in a full ten years earlier and humans only have normal weapons (which we all know do nothing against the 800s), not plasma guns from the first version of the war, and while the main network and production base is destroyed along with a large number of unfinished 800s it's heavily implied Skynet has many many more. However, it would seem Skynet didn't go as heavy on the Nukes this time and the humans have A-10s and tanks.
Skynet is also much harder to kill now. The original had one central computer controlling everything which could be destroyed, the one that got started in T3 was software distributed pretty much everywhere.
TRON: Legacy involves the distant aftermath of one of these between Kevin Flynn and Clu. Kevin struggled against Clu after he began his coup to take over the Grid, but because Clu was largely created from Kevin's own body and personality, any attempt Kevin made to fight Clu just made him stronger. Ultimately, Kevin retreated and removed himself from the struggle, having long since been resigned to his fate.
In Reign of Fire the humans certainly feel that way about their fight for survival against the dragons while the dragons simply want to eat.
This is essentially one of the main themes of the Godzilla franchise. So long as humans engage in war, another Kaiju will inevitably show up to wreak havoc. To make matters worse, a good portion of Kaiju are Nigh Invulnerable unless attacked by certain non-conventional weaponry (and even then it's a one-in-a-million-chance) which turns the war against giant monsters into an endless effort to just simply keep them at bay.
As for Godzilla himself, the original 1954 film implies that there can't be just one Godzilla. The sequels confirm this showing that there is an entire species of Godzilla (and a breeding population if Minya and Junior are any indication) meaning that humanity (Japan in particular) is in a constant no-win war against an entire species of enraged radioactive dinosaurs capable of destroying a city within hours.
What the war with the Kaiju was becoming in Pacific Rim. The Kaiju were learning to adapt against fighting the Jaegers and destroying more Jaegers until only four remain active. Not to mention the Pan Pacific Defense Corps was pulling funds away from creating and maintaining the Jaegers to focus on building the Kaiju Wall that claims to protect the surrounding countries from the Kaiju.
The one waged by mutants of the future in X-Men: Days of Future Past. Their eradication by the Sentinels is a predetermined outcome; even with Kitty Pryde's Mental Time Travel powers, they can only postpone their inevitable demise.
There were a couple of hollow victories, usually excised in the numerous adaptations.
Notably, this (along with I Will Fight Some More Forever) is averted, in that when these hollow victories deflate some of the Martian hubris, the invaders find a way to strike with even greater impunity. Once it becomes clear that no further victories can be expected, it is explicitly stated that all organized resistance falls apart.
This is sort of a weird one. The "Hollow victories" are the result of artillery. This happens to have been an arm in which the British army was extremely backward at the time (this was ground home by the 2nd Boer War, only a couple of years later). Leading to the supposition that if the Martians had landed anywhere else in Europe things might have been a little more hairy for them. Of course, this is Completely Missing the Point.
David Gerrold's The War Against the Chtorr novels depicts humanity slowly being overwhelmed by an invading alien ecosystem. A quoted text in Season for Slaughter mentions a psychological condition called 'Red Queen Syndrome' where people alternate between fanatical attempts to defeat the Chtorr and a hopeless sense that all their efforts are in vain. The hero Jim McCarthy and his love interest 'Lizard' Terrelli are both caught up in the cycles of this condition. The quoted text depressingly concludes that there is no real cure as the perception that Resistance Is Futile is likely to be all too accurate.
Stephen Baxter's Exulant novel details the Scary Dogmatichumanity's obsessive war against all other aliens in the galaxy. As the story opens they've been seiging the Xeelee center of operations in the centre of the galaxy for several thousand years. The Xeelee are, well, just doing their thing and occasionally zapping the annoying primates.
In P.C. Hodgell's Chronicles of the Kencyrath series, the Kencyr people have been fighting a losing battle against the forces of chaos for 30 millenia. Little surprise that they're burned out ? and then when nothing happens for the last 3 millenia from the point of view of most of their population, little wonder they try and forget the hopeless task.
Jack Cambell's The Lost Fleet has two factions of humanity fighting a space war to a stalemate for the past 100 years. The toll of the war has resulted in regular atrocites by both sides and so many deaths that battle tactics aren't even used anymore since everyone who knew them died before they could teach the next generation. It is hinted that unseen aliens have been manipulating the war in the hopes that the humans will wipe each other out.
In the aptly named Final War of Keith Laumer's Bolo series, both sides are so effective at sterilizing planets that the best either the humans or Melconians can hope for is that the other side will overlook an out-of-the-way colony world or two.
In The Dresden Files, the White Council of Wizards has been engaging in one of these against the vampires of the Red Court since the third novel in the series, and it hasn't been going well for them, partially because the vampires took out the Council's foremost expert on vampires early in the war and a traitor within the Council has been feeding information to the vampires. The Council has just barely been holding on, and the only thing that saved them from being wiped out was the intervention of the Summer Court of Faerie. Then, in Changes, the war comes to an abrupt and literally heart-stopping end when Harry Dresden arranges to use a bloodline curse to kill every Red Court vampire at once.
Unfortunately, The war with the Red Court may have simply been a diversion to weaken the White Coucil and blind them to their true enemy, the Circle.
Codex Alera (by the same author) has the threat of this in the form of the Vord (openly inspired by the Zerg). According to Kitai and Doroga, the (currently nomadic and somewhat primitive) Marat once lived elsewhere, implied to be in another dimension / on another planet, (they lack the vocabulary to properly express it, and don't consider it particularly important) and had an advanced civilisation that was utterly wiped out by the Vord, leaving only a few refugees to flee and try to build new lives elsewhere, and when they successfully built a new culture, the same thing happened again. During the series, the Vord start another war of extermination, and by the end of the last book Alera is safe for now, but the vast home continent of the Canim has been obliterated, along with the vast majority of the Canim species, and the surviving Vord queen living there is expected to invade Alera in a century or so. Despite this, the series ends on a hopeful note, as the unintelligent Vord legions are a Keystone Army that only functions within a few-mile proximity of the queen, and the surviving queen is unable to create more queens to lead her forces, meaning that if she is killed (difficult, but by no means impossible,) the Vord in that world will be permanently crippled. However, it is very clear that if the first queen had not been forced to create sterile daughters due to her initial contamination by Tavi, the future would be totally hopeless for all other species.
The Gun fights one of these against the Line in The Half-Made World. No matter how much death and destruction the Agents of the Gun wreak, the Line's resources are essentially infinite and they always end up pushing the Gun back. Subverted in that it's strongly implied that this suits the Gun just fine - it is literally the embodiment of belligerence and grudges and the romance of fighting for a lost cause, so winning would be against all it stands for. It also helps that despite being constantly driven back, the Gun can no more be permanently defeated than the Line can.
Live Action TV
The Cylons from Battlestar Galactica nuked most of the humans and are hunting down the few tens of thousands of survivors in a ongoing costly war. In fact things got so bad the crew of the Pegasus started to cannibalize civilian ships for spare parts.....by force. It became somewhat of a hopeless war for both sides after the Cylons lost their resurrection technology.
The War of the Worlds TV series has The Squad, called the Blackwood Project (which also has The Cavalry as back up) fighting remnants from the original 1950's invasion guerrilla style. The Blackwood Project has it hard— their resources aren't too vast, since society mysteriously forgot about the original invasion for the most part. And the US government would like to keep it that way.
The Mor-Tax aliens don't have it very easy either, as they have to struggle to adapt to earth and free their comrades and war ships that are being held in military storage. Which, of course, is hard due to the interference of the Blackwood Project. In fact during the second season one of the leaders of the second wave of aliens (the mothren) questioned another lead mothren over the choice of picking planet earth in the first place.
Most of the time neither side ever actually accomplished anything, outside of stalemating each other. And if either side actually got a victory it was usually a very hollow one.
Babylon 5 has the Earth-Minbari War as a backstory, in which the Minbari all but obliterate EarthForce and arrived at Earth with the intent to genocide the planet. Even John Sheridan's big victory against the Black Star only served to piss off the Minbari more. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the war is that the humans managed to hold out as long as they did, in spite of the massive technology and power imbalance. Only when the Minbari learned something so soul shatteringly important about Humanity at the last moment did they stand down.
Londo Mollari: The humans, I think, knew they were doomed. But where another race would surrender to despair, the humans fought back with even greater strength. They made the Minbari fight for every inch of space. In my life, I have never seen anything like it; They would weep, they would pray, they would say goodbye to their loved ones, and then throw themselves without fear or hesitation at the very face of death itself, never surrendering. No one who saw them fighting against the inevitable could help but be moved to tears by their courage, their stubborn nobility. When they ran out of ships, they used guns; when they ran out guns, they used knives and sticks and bare hands. They were magnificent. I only hope that when it is my time, I may die with half as much dignity as I saw in their eyes in the end. They did this for two years. They never ran out of courage... but in the end, they ran out of time.
An alternate universe in another episode had a badly damaged Enterprise that was one of the few Federation ships remaining and "The Borg are everywhere".
The Borg themselves were on the receiving end of this trope in their war against Species 8472.
Played with in the Deep Space Nine episode "Statistical Probabilities", in which a group of genetically engineered supergeniuses ( by which we mean "can deduce correctly that a political leader is a 'pretender to the throne' who killed his predecessor's daughter and took power just by watching said man give an unrelated speech") state that they have studied the state of the Federation's war with the Dominion and have found that the Federation has absolutely no chance of victory. Their prediction indicated that even if they got lucky with Romulan aid or an anti-Dominion coup on Cardassia (both of which ended up happening), the war was hopeless. The only hope was to surrender and endure decades (if not centuries) of oppression until an Earth-centered revolution would bring about the rebirth of even better Federation.
Unfortunately, unbeknownst to these geniuses, the Dominion leaders were genre-savvy enough to already be planning to wipe out every living thing on Earth once it was conquered; specifically, to prevent exactly that kind of organized rebellion down-the-road.
Ultimately subverted, as the war was over about a year and a half later, with the Federation victorious.
On top of that, the geniuses' plan to bring about the Federation's surrender in light of this was thwarted by their fourth member turning on them, leading to the Kirk Summation by Bashir amounting to "even you guys couldn't predict what was going to happen in that one room, let alone the galaxy; people can Screw Destiny anytime."
An alternate timeline in Star Trek: Enterprise has the Xindi succeeding in pulverizing the Earth and then starting a genocidal hunt for the remains of humanity.
"The Doctor's Daughter" has two groups of clones engaged in a hopeless war within the ruins of a crashed spaceship. Subverted when it's revealed that the war has only been going on for slightly under a week.
The End of Time revealed that the Time Lord-Dalek war ended up as an example of this. The Time Lords became morally corrupted to the degree that the war ended up being between two different types of Omnicidal Maniac, as the Daleks wanted to destroy every living thing in the universe that wasn't a Dalek and the Time Lords wanted to escape the war by destroying the entire universe so they could ascend. Whole planets full of people were time-looped to be repeatedly resurrected only to die horribly again. The damage to the timeline was unleashing several sorts of Eldritch Abomination on the universe. At which point the Doctor decided to time-lock the entire era so that nothing can get in or out and the whole thing is just shunted off into its own little pocket of space-time.
Stargate SG-1 had a mild version of this trope. Much was made of the superiority of Goa'uld technology and the near-hopelessness of a war against them, especially in the earlier seasons. The last episode of Season 1 showed us an alternate Earth where the Goa'uld were slowly but unstoppably obliterating city after city. In later seasons, there was an episode where it turned out Teal'c never truly believed the Goa'uld could be defeated, and a number of episodes where every seeming victory over the Goa'uld just seemed to make things worse in the end. On the other hand, the Goa'uld's over-the-top villain act (often lampshaded in the show), the Villain Decay of their mooksnote Humans on Earth progressed technologically, while the Goa'uld mostly didn't, the seeming lack of urgency to their threatnote Earth was relatively well-defended thanks to the Stargate Iris, and it's location in space was mostly unknown in the first season, then protected by the Asgard starting in the third season, the heroes' gradually growing mastery of alien technology, and the overall very low Good Guy casualty ratenote Of course, SG-1 is the only group that experienced no casualties: other SG teams were mixed of Red and Mauve Shirts, made this a particularly comfy and non-threatening Hopeless War.
Falling Skies: the worlds military has been devastated, and civilians are all that's left of any real resistance.
Older Than Print: The very basis of Norse Mythology is that even the gods are going to fall someday. The only bright spot is to fight with valor and take plenty of the enemy with you.
Space 1889 played straight or subverted depending on perspective. A Martian trying to fight off humans is likely to feel this way if he is being honest with himself. Mars has been drying, developing backwards and diminishing in numbers for at least two millennia. Humans on the other hand are breeding like vermin and are constantly developing new and better machines, particularly weapons. Even a major victory is unlikely to reverse these trends and will thus be a very hollow victory.
The Tyranids, a race of psychic locusts that eat planets, have attacked the galaxy 3 times, being held at bay only by strokes of luck and the sacrifice of billions — and those 3 attacks are just Tyranid scouting fleets, the Tyranids having possibly eaten several other GALAXIES before heading to ours. And on top of that two of the three scouting fleets are still operational, the thousands of splinters of Hive Fleet Kraken are still roaming around in the fringe devouring worlds with impunity while Hive Fleet Leviathan is still barreling on toward Terra fighting the Orks but another two hive fleets are coming to reinforce them. And even if they fall, there are hints - here and there - that something even worse is chasing them.
Chaos is sending out stronger and deadlier incursions from their alternate universe than ever before — and all it takes is one properly psychic person turning to Chaos to allow them to attack anywhere, anywhen.
The Orks, being a race of fungus-people, are everywhere (killing one releases spores that grow more Orks) and nearly impossible to get rid of. The only thing preventing them from taking over the galaxy in very short order is that they have just as much fun killing each other.
The Eldar are dying, having destroyed themselves accidentally creating a rogue god/dess of lust — and it's strongly hinted that the only way the Tyranids or Necrons can be fought off is with the Eldar outfitting all of Humanity with their ancient superweapons, which is humanity is too xenophobic to use any ways. Their Plan B? Capture enough Eldar souls in hypertech soul capturing crystals that they can create another god — this one a god of Death.
The Dark Eldar are missing these hypertech soul capturing crystals, so they keep the god/dess of lust away by causing as much random pain and misery as possible, by doing slave raids and torturing the slaves to death. It doesn't work perfectly — they slowly lose their souls to the god/dess anyway, so their plan is to just steal OTHER souls to replace their own.
The Tau may be the most "hopeful" or "positive" civilization in the setting — as long as you ignore the concentration camps, the fact that their race has been under the sway of impossible to disobey avatars of The Virus for millennia, etc. They even have active scientific progress and actually understand their technology. The problem? Because they're completely un-psychic their faster than light travel is much slower than that of other factions, and they're right smack dab in the path of the Tyranids... Oh, and one of their generals appears to have broken out of their racial mind control, which is a very very bad thing as the leaders of the race have spent 5000+ years on a breeding program to make their warrior caste the biggest, baddest, most bloodthirsty Tau possible, under the assumption that they'd never, ever be able to disobey.
A bit of a subversion though in that Tau society remains stable and (compared to a good chunk of the Imperium) relatively safe. In addition, since they're also one of the few factions that actually give a damn about understanding and advancing technology, it wouldn't be out of the question to have them developing a reasonable counter to the Tyranids given enough time. Also, their almost non-existent Warp signature means that they pose a potent threat to Chaos.
Also the more negative parts mention above are either imply somewhat or Imperial Propaganda. And its heavily implied the break away is still fighting for "the greater good" just in his own way.
The Ciaphas Cain (HERO OF THE IMPERIUM) books have a lighter take on the setting. Humanity isn't as xenophobic as first stated and is willing to work with other species, the more brutal of humanities' minions are offed by disgruntled citizens and soldiers, and many worlds are downright pleasant to live on.
Orcs are still there. They outnumber mankind and most other races combined. As usual the only thing keeping them from taking over the world is the lack of unity.
And their skewed balance of quantity over quality. Green life is cheap.
The forces of Chaos are as numerous and deadly as ever, except that they have hordes of mutants and beastmen hiding in the woods (who, again, outnumber mankind), the spells that keeps Hell Itself from breaking through the barriers of reality are steadily weakened... And as the army book proclaims: "Against the daemons of chaos there can be no final victory."
Adding to that are the cults dedicated to chaos, anything from individual hamlets and small covens to entire human armies that have turned to chaos and are actively fighting for it from within the Empire's borders...
The Skaven has been undermining all of civilization for ages, they are arguably the most technologically advanced race, with huge amounts of Magitek.
A more localized example is the Elven civil war, where the somewhat-less evil side has been fighting their psychotically evil kin for millennia. Both sides having suffered so much in the fighting that they are going extinct. Oh, and the latest plans of the psychotic versions have included undoing the abovementioned spells that keep the world safe from the denizens of Hell...
The last, best hope against the forces of chaos are a race of man-eating lizards, who only has a fraction of the knowledge they once had and have trouble coordinating their actions at that.
Not to mention the fact that their plan is to separate all the races and lock them up in different spots of the world.
In Werewolf: The Apocalypse, the werewolves and other shapeshifters are losing a Hopeless War against the unstoppable cosmic force of corruption that is warping the Earth and will, very soon, either destroy humanity and all shapeshifters, or reduce the planet to a Hell on Earth. The shapeshifters know they are hopelessly outmatched and cannot win, and most don't believe there'll ever be a recovery after the Apocalypse. But they are determined to die with honor and dignity, resisting to the last.
The Forsaken are locked in three major wars at once: against the Hosts, vicious half-spirit entities that want to either cut the spirit world off permanently (the Azlu) or rip its walls down (the Beshilu), the spirit world itself, and a faction of their race known as the Pure which views them as heretics. The Hosts are nigh-impossible to kill permanently. Nine out of ten spirits are more powerful than the strongest werewolf, and they tend to be extremely hostile towards living things. And the Pure collectively outnumber the Forsaken.
The majority of Mages have been divided into two major factions which have continuously been at war since before recorded history, with no signs of it letting up ever. Both sides have goals which could be considered simultaneously altruistic and incredibly selfish, and even within the two groupings there is much infighting, backstabbing, and vicious politicking. If Mages don't fall into these two groupings, they are either 1) individuals who choose to go it alone and have little to no support network and probably won't last very long, 2) self-hating magic haters who have basically declared war on all other Mages, and will pursue this goal with fanatical single-mindedness, 3) members of the so-called "Left-Handed Legacies" which even if they aren't serving the agenda of some manner of reality eating monster, will still do some truly reprehensible things (cannibalism, soul-eating, etc.), or 4) dead. And then there's the constant struggle against the Abyss, which isn't so much a reality eating monster as it is a reality.
In Shards of Alara, the Grixis plane plays host to such a plight. In a world bereft of white and green mana, the last traces of humanity are left to fight a hopeless battle against demons, necromancers, and armies of undead.
The Kamigawa block set also featured a hopeless war inspired by Japanese mythology, where mortals fought against the immortal Kami, powerful spirits that inhabited all things.
Phyrexia: Originally a five year story-arc consisting of enemies to the entire Multiverse made of both machine and flesh. Originally defeated only through a huge war and the sacrifice of many main-characters to the story. Phyrexia is back as of "Scars of Mirrodin" and have turned the plane of Mirrodin into "New Phyrexia" despite the best efforts of the Mirrans to fight them off. The last humans and other Mirrans are holed up in tiny refugee camps, alive and free only because the victorious horrors can't be bothered to kill them as long as they aren't a threat. Which they aren't.
Zendikar: In all honesty nothing on Zendikar or even Zendikar itself can stop the Eldrazi. These are eldritch horrors that eat reality itself. It's so one-sided that it can't even be considered a war; to the Eldrazi it's basically pest control and harvesting.
The Planescape Campaign setting has the Blood War: an eternal struggle between Lawful and Chaotic Evil, both of which possess infinite amounts of troops, that has been going on ever since the two forces first met. It paused, twice - once to assess the threat of the Illithid Empire, and once when the forces of Good tried to intervene directly... and were utterly stomped. Most forces not directly involved are desperately trying to keep the fight going, for fear of what would happen if either side actually *won* ...
Cthulhu Tech, anyone? In the grim darkness of not-so-far future humanity is on the losing side, what with the Migou, your unfriendly neigborhood Starfish Aliens from Yuggoth, holding the poles, the whole of Russia and chunks of Canada(together with Alaska), Scandinavia, Manchuria and Korea (both) in their insectoid/fungoid/crustacean hands/paws/whatever, the Ax-Crazy Rapine Storm rolling through Asia towards Europe and the Esoteric Order of Dagon everywhere you'd point at, given that the location you point at is at sea. And each side hopes to bring upon The End of the World as We Know It, at least for the New Earth Government. To be fair, the NEG doesn't always lose, but their chances of winning the Aeon War are pretty much zero.
Mass Effect 3 begins with the Reaper invasion of Earth. Most of Earth's fleet are massacred before they can inflict any damage, and the only possibility for victory is for Shepard to escape from Earth, leaving the Reapers in control as s/he tries to build an alliance to take back the planet and defeat the Reapers. The rest of the game only serves to drive the point home that, while individual Reapers can be defeated with incredible effort, their fleet as a whole is completely unstoppable. There really is no hope of winning conventionally.
To put in perspective just how badly things are going, the turians are the biggest Badass Army the galaxy has, and they are the ones holding out the best against the Reapers, even managing to kill a couple in fleet battles. They report battles with an 85% mortality rate, and their homeworld is on fire within days of the invasion. Everyone else in the galaxy, with the possible exception of the krogan after forming their alliance with the turians, is far worse off.
Previous victims of the Reapers had it even worse: the Reapers would attack the Citadel – the center of the mass relay network, and also always the center of galactic government – completely out of the blue, overwhelm its defenders, and essentially win the war in a single stroke. It's entirely thanks to a few Prothean Popsicle survivors from the previous cycle, who disabled that tactic, that the current cycle even had a ghost of a chance.
Gears of War has a bleak war going on between humans and a race of subterranean mutants called the Locust who literally come from up under the ground and begin to slaughter everything and everybody. Ironically and cruelly, most of the human casualties comes from the human military scorching the planet (along with civilian survivors) with orbital laser satellites in order to stop the rampaging hordes of Locust from commandeering cities and equipment that may be of use to them. Now the humans are fighting a dire guerrilla war with the Locust. In the first game you unleash a massive bomb that is supposed to either destroy the Locust or cripple them so badly that they cannot recover, you're treated to a cutscene of the bomb gloriously detonating and wiping out a ton of Locust, then the Locust Queen reveals that the Locust have survived and the war is far from over. The second game brings new developments in the war: a lethal disease known as Rust Lung that comes from exposure to Imulsion, the COG's main fuel source, and the fact that the Locust have a new weapon that can destroy entire cities, forcing COG onto the offensive to wipe out the Locust. However, it becomes apparent that the Locust are fighting their own losing war against humanity as well as the Lambent. By Gears of War 3, the COG has disbanded. However, the remnants form an alliance with their old enemies to hit both the Lambent and Locust's last strongholds and finally, a superweapon which removes the parasite in Imulsion is unleashed which kills all the Lambent and Locusts on the planet. Ending the Hopless War once and for all.
The humans of the Halo series were spread out as far as the outer rim of the galaxy, possessing hundreds of colonies, before the Covenant attacked, glassing entire planets, such as Harvest and Reach. In short order, humanity is pushed back to only its inner colonies and Earth itself, with humanity's overall population dropping from thirty nine billion to twenty three billion, and the military strength dropping from around a hundred million soldiers down to the lower tens of millions, with only a few ultimately meaningless victories to show for it. Then there's the alien parasite known as ''The Flood''which is a huge threat to both humans AND Covenant. What's sobering about this war, besides the massive casualties, is the fact that the UNSC was filled with legendary badasses from the top of the chain of command, such as Admirals Cole and Whitcomb, all the way down to Marine grunts, like Sergeant Marvin Mobuto and Sergeant Major Avery Johnson. They were STILL nowhere close to winning or even ending the war. The only thing that helped turn the tide was The Flood and Covenant civil war.
On the covenant side no one actually knows the casualties. But basically the entire Prophet race (very small to begin with, with tight family planning to prevent inbreeding) was on High Charity - so, that's one less species in the Halo galaxy at least. Not that anyone'd miss them, considering what they're responsible for. Also The covenant might have taken Reach but they payed a heavy price for it, because over 2/3rds of the Covenant fleet (Fleet of Particular Justice) was destroyed during the attack. The covenant would also take heavy loses in ground battles. Interestingly enough before they attacked Reach the covenant suffered a severe defeat at the Battle of Sigma Octanus IV. There was also the loss of an armada of 500 ships and a massive supply station due to the Heroic Sacrifice of Admiral Whitcomb, a Spartan, and a spook. Not to mention the Covenant's civil war is still ongoing 6 years AFTER the Human-Covenant war. Jiralhanae wage their own internecine wars, the Sangheili themselves are gradually losing their fleets in a war of attrition, having lost the technical expertise kept exclusively by the Prophets. Plus the relationship between the covenant separatists and humans are dicey at best if "Halo: Glasslands" are any indication.
According to Halo4 there are Sangheili who are still loyal causing yet another rift.
Of course, by Halo 4, humanity has surpassed the Covenant in some technological areas thanks to influx of Covenant and Forerunner tech. The Infinity is the largest and most advanced human ship ever built (not counting ancient humans) and can likely go toe-to-toe with any Covenant ship and win.
Not to mention the SPARTAN-IV program, which is a re-tool of Project ORION (AKA SPARTAN-I) involving the "upgrading" of veteran soldiers to Super Soldier status with hardly any genetic restrictions. The latest MJOLNIR armor is also better but can be produced much cheaper than the original. Basically, given enough funding, a whole army of SPARTANs can be created with no shortage of volunteers.
Wing Commander sometimes portrayed the war against the Kilrathi as hopeless, especially in the Tie In Novels. So much so that the only way that humanity could come up with to win was a desperate strike against the Kilrathi homeworld, completely destroying it and killing millions, if not billions of civilians to demoralize the entire race. The fact that it works is a miracle.
Sin and Punishment screws this trope up entirely. Originally released on the N64 in 2000 exclusively to Japanese audiences, the story of the game takes place in the near future, where nearly everyone has been screwed over into becoming psychotic killer mutants of any given breed. In 2007, it was localized and released on the Virtual Console to English-speaking audiences. The screw-up? The game takes place in the year 2007.Hilarity Ensues.
Sin and Punishment: Star Successor: It's revealed that humanity only exists because some Sufficiently Advanced Aliens called the Creators need a massive supply of Red Shirts to fight against Eldritch Abominations from another dimension (remember Achi? She was just one of these abominations, and pretty much the whole of the first game came about due to her actions). There are seven Earths, and whenever a strain of humanity grows too peaceful for the Creators' tastes, they wipe out all life on the planet and replace it with monstrosities called the Keepers, which are to defend the planet until the Creators can re-seed it with human life.
One of the major themes of Half-Life 2. In the 'Episode' expansions it's heavily implied that even if the Combine occupation forces are driven from the Earth, the retribution from the Combine proper will be even worse than their current regime.
All accounts seem to suggest that the Combine are going out of their way to preserve humanity in order to turn us into slaves (thanks to Doctor Breen's "efforts"), and that they need but a nudge to destroy us all utterly. Let's hope that the Freeman-Vortigaunt team-up shakes things up a bit more, then.
The Earthsiege series portrays the Cybrid onslaught as nearly unstoppable, with the heroes' efforts to stop them being as much about luck as anything else.
Total Annihilation. To paraphrase the intro, after 4,000 years of total war that exhausted the entire resources of the galaxy, the shattered remnants of the two sides' armies now battle viciously to the death on each world, and the only acceptable outcome is the complete and utter elimination of the other. Though subverted in that one side does eventually win...
This is one of the possible endings in Alien Front Online, where the war between humanity and the Triclops becomes a near-permanent stalemate with millions of casualties on each side.
Killzone ends with taking Vekta back from the Helghast invasion, though it took them many years and many deaths to accomplish. Killzone 2 looked like the end of it, after invading Helghan and reaching the Emperor's Palace, until you witness a large Helghast fleet loom over the capital shortly after Rico kills Scolar Visari. This after most of Vekta's navy was mostly obliterated and the remaining ground forces had made their last desperate attempt to reach Visari to end the war.
It wasn't Vekta's navy, it was the ISA fleet, as in the entire human forces and the Helghan fleet was most of their force (hence why Visari claim "We have lost nothing")
The ISA managed to pull a last minute victory from the Helghast which involves triggering the Petrusite Bomb, which came at the cost of billions of Helghast lives.
The Resistance series. A war that mankind is losing because their enemies, the Chimera, are so advanced that everything the humans have tried against them has been proven either obsolete (like the anti-Carrier serum in Resistance: Retribution. Even if James Grayson succeeded in killing off all the Carriers with it, it did nothing at the end, since the Chimera had already changed their conversion methods beforehand) or ends up failing horribly (examples in question: the British capturing an Angel in the second game, basically becoming bait for an attack, and the Fission Bomb in the second game ended up triggering the teleportation of Earth into some other place in space). It's also implied that Daedalus'planworked. And finally, with most of the key characters either dead or incapable of recovering from The Virus, the situation just keeps getting worse. However, in the third and final installment, The human managed to pull through with a cure and the more obvious problem was solved through liberal application of firepower from an One-Man Army.
As of the end of Resistance 3, it seems that the hope is back into the world.
Command & Conquer: The Tiberium series, and it's titular Tiberium Wars slowly became this over the course of it's existance, the war started in 1999 and while there were momments of peace, the entire conflict didn't end until the third Tiberium war in 2049, with a smaller flare-up occuring all the way in 2077. Over the course of the wars, two different third parties have attempted to end all life, Tiberium, which originally started the war, has taken over over half the world, and is slowly, but surely, turning earth into a Death World, yet GDI and Nod keep going at it.
In Dragon Age, the dwarves are fighting one against the darkspawn. Due to the darkspawn's overwhelming numbers, as well as the dwarves' low population and slow birth rate, they are slowly losing, down to only two cities (which hate each other). It's made worse by the fact that a large portion of their population is not allowed to fight, due to how dwarven culture forbids the massive surface-caste and castless population from serving as warriors. It's theorized that if the dwarven culture doesn't change soon, then it will be destroyed, even if the dwarves live on.
While it hasn't reached full-scale war, the Tevinter Imperium has spent eighty years or so fruitlessly trying to drive the Qunari off the island of Seheron. As the Qunari once fought everyone else in the setting and almost won, Fenris doesn't think much of the Imperium's chances if they go on the offensive. "I believe the Qunari are saving their strength, building a massive fleet. When they wish true war, we will know."
Jade Empire had ghosts overrunning the Empire thanks to the Sun brothers massacring the Spirit Monks and enslaving the Goddess in charge of the dead. There was no hope of winning: every ghost disrupted would eventually reform, and everyone killed by a ghost would eventually become one. And to make matters worse, the imbalance caused by the appearance of the ghosts is empowering demons.
Gratuitous Space Battles is set in a galaxy where everyone is at war with everyone else. The Alliance and the Order are on genocidal rampages to wipe out everyone who isn't them, The Empire is out to conquer whatever parts of the galaxy they don't rule already, the Swarm are invading with their endless fleets, the Rebels are fighting to overthrow the Empire and survive amidst all these crazy lunatics trying to wipe them out, and the Tribe have decided that the only way to bring peace and harmony to the galaxy is to blow everyone else to atomic ribbons. And all of the above owe The Federation money, and their "Contract Enforcement Division" is coming to collect.
In the backstory for the upcoming Dawn Of Victorymod for Sins of a Solar Empire, Earth is invaded by aliens in the middle of World War 2 à la World War by Harry Turtledove. Despite the Scinfaxi (human name for the invaders) miscalculating the human level of technology, they proceed to Curb-Stomp Battle humans to the brink of extinction using their Humongous Mecha. Humans only once manage to score a decisive victory by luring the enemy into an ambush in a major North American city and then proceeding to shell the city with massed artillery barrages, scoring a blow to the alien forces at the cost of an entire city. The Soviets manage to capture a supply of plutonium from a Scinfaxi convoy and use it to build an atomic bomb. The detonation wipes out most of the enemy forces in the region. Seeing this, the Americans, the Germans, and the Japanese follow suit, forcing the Scinfaxi to retreat to the Southern hemisphere. Until nukes are built, this pretty much fits the trope.
Myth perfectly illustrates the situation - the Empire of Cath Bruig has been razed leaving only a barren desert, the Free Cities of the North are under threat, and every day the Fallen Lords gain more ground.
The Elder Wars in Lusternia, fought between the Elder Gods and the Soulless Gods: not only did the Soulless outnumber the Elders, they ate them upon defeat and gained their powers. The Elders tried the same tactic against them, but it didn't go so well.
This is how the war in Valkyria Chronicles was viewed by many Gallians before Alicia's Valkyrur side awakens, as Gallia was severely outnumbered and didn't have many of the technological advances that the Imperials did. In fact, the battle in which the spoilered event occurs would have garanteed Gallia's defeat had said event not happened.
A gameplay example: in MOBA games like League of Legends it is possible to realise your team is going to lose in the first 5-10 minutes, or even before the match starts (bad champion matchup in blind pick mode in LoL) but you cannot surrender yet and are forced to keep playing and getting your face kicked in by a team that keeps getting stronger until you can finally surrender - assuming there are less than two people on your team that choose to decline the surrender vote and keep fighting a hopeless battle. And since an early '11 update the winning team is encouraged to drag out the game for as long as possible to get more influence points.
In Digital Devil Saga, it's heavily implied that before the events of the game, the Junkyard was in a perpetual stalemate. To the point where an alliance is almost unheard of. This is quite intentional on the programmers' part, as the Junkyard was conceived as a training sim with the ultimate purpose of creating combat AIs capable of responding under duress to any situation that popped up. This was to be achieved by restocking lost units and shoving adverse conditions on the commanders to force them to keep thinking of new strategies while never giving them any data or idea that could lead to an actual chance of winning, which would end the sim without ever completing its purpose.
Alien Legacy has this as its backstory and is the entire reason for the game. You are the captain of the colony ship UNS Calypso, sent to a remote system as part of a last-ditch effort to ensure humanity's survival. Earth is in a losing war against the Centaurians. While both sides are at about the same technological level, humans are limited to one system, while the Centaurians have already settled at least one other system (Tau Ceti is mentioned). They are also significantly more aggressive than your average human, and this ferocity is what's driving their desire to obliterate humanity. After a failed final offensive (contact lost with the last fleet sent to Alpha Centauri), the Earth governments unanimously vote to switch to a defensive strategy and start building colony ships. Each ship's crew is to maintain radiosilence and assume the loss of Earth and all other colony ships. By the time you arrive to Beta Caeli at the start of the game and wake up from your Human Popsicle state, hundreds of years (if not millennia) have passed, and there have been no word from Earth besides a few messages several decades after the launch.
The premise of Muv-Luv is this, humanity discovers the Beta which quickly overwhelms humanity and have reached a point where almost every able man has been drafted or killed and humanity has about 10 to 15 years left before complete extinction.
Epic Mickey: Before Mickey came to the Wastelands, Shadow Blot and the Mad Doctor had pretty much won the Blot War; they have conquered Oswald's castle and petrified his wife Ortensia, an act which sends him into a deep depression and causes him to lose his will to fight, leaving the fighting to small, weak bands of resistance groups. One of them, the crew of Captain Hook, has most of the members dead or turned into Beetleworx and the rest scattered leaderless in the jungle. Another group, The Gremlins, has been more successful in fighting off Blot's forces, but the sheer force of Blot's forces causes most of the Gremlins to be taken as prisoners, and their own village was under siege before Mickey helped in turning the tide.
Overlapping with a Forever War is the war between the Shinkoku race and the Gohma from Asura's Wrath. The Shinkoku Trastrium civilization has fouight the Gohma, the embodiment of the planet's rage, for countless eons, with no clear victor on either side, with Vlitra, the leader of the Gohma factions, growing stronger and bigger with each awakening after being only subdued each time. This causes the 127th emperor, Strada, to loose hope that the war will ever end, and would rather have the Shinkoku move to a different place across universe and abandon their home planet of Gaea. This actually sparks the main plot, as Deus, the other Big Bad, as well as a Well-Intentioned Extremist, to betray strada and pin the blame on Asura to exact his plot to use TheBrahmastra to blast Vlitra into oblivion once and for all.
To make this fact even worse, Chakravartin, who created the Gohma in the first place to test the Demi-gods and see if he can find himself an heir amongst them, says that even if Vlitra were destroyed, he can make more Gohma at will, and implies that he has destroyed countless galaxies with the Gohma since time immemorial, and will continue to do so in the future.
There are three main factions, the Americans, the Vikings, and the Celts. There were also minor factions remaining, like the Sioux. While life isn't great for any of them, it is likely pretty freaky being a one city state in a world where nukes are casually thrown around everywhere.
The Giant War in the backstory of Dark Souls II. The Giants were so enraged by King Vendrick stealing something very important to them that they continued to invade Drangleic for generations heedless of the losses to their own side. The Giants were eventually driven away for good after the Undead Hero went back in time and defeated the Giant Lord but the damage was done. The double whammy of the War and the onset of the Undead Curse doomed Drangleic.
The war against the Ur-Quan Hierarchy in Star Control turns out this way, as the second game begins with you finding out that your side lost the war, and the rest of the game is based on building up alliances and trying to regroup, while never entertaining the possibility of taking on the Ur-Quan directly. If you waste too much time though, another example comes up, as the Kohr-Ah (the Ur-Quan's meaner, nastier brothers) start exterminating every race in the sector, ending with you.
In the Sluggy Freelance story "That Which Redeems," the Dimension of Lame is pretty much helpless before the Dimension of Pain demons, largely because Torg's the only person in the entire dimension who isn't a complete pacifist (most Dimension of Lame residents aren't even comfortable with the idea of food fights). The only thing stopping the demons from completely overrunning the Earth are their small numbers and Lord Horribus's poor decision making.
Gone with the Blastwave: We're not given a whole lot of detail about the wider war, but the city where the action takes place has been so thoroughly wrecked by the fighting that its strategic value is probably close to nil, and yet the three factions are still at it.
Tech Infantry features an Earth Federation that is in two endless Hopeless Wars at once. The first is against The Bugs, large insectoid aliens that never seem to be defeated, no matter how far they get pushed back at the cost of horrific casualties. The second is against itself, in a seemingly endless series of Civil Wars, coup attempts, resistance movements, and supernatural secret wars carried on behind the scenes inside the very power structure itself. Even when the Eastern Bloc conquers the Federation, beats the minor alien races along the border into submission, and seems to finally reach some sort of low-grade stalemate with the Bugs, the former Federation military-political power structure becomes the NEW La Résistance, carrying on the tradition of endless civil war from the other side of the barbed wire. Meanwhile, the Vampires, Mages, Werewolves, and other supernatural creatures continue their private and not-so-private power struggles as usual.
In The Salvation War, the forces of Hell find themselves in this situation when they try to conquer 2008 Earth and Humanity kicks their tails and proceeds to conquer them!.
The war in Avatar: The Last Airbender lasted for nearly an entire century. By the finale of the show the nation of the Air Nomads had been wiped out, the Southern Water Tribe had been reduced to scattered villages, and the Northern Water Tribe had retreated to within its own borders. Vast areas of the Earth Kingdom had been claimed as Fire Nation colonies. The two major Earth Kingdom cities, Omashu and Ba Sing Se came under Fire Nation control. The only thing standing against the Fire-Nation were small uprisings and guerilla armies. And the the comet came, giving the Fire Nation the ability to literally burn the continued resistance to the ground... of course, the good guys win, but without the Avatar they were basically screwed.
Any war which does not end swiftly but becomes lengthened. This is the moral behind war of attrition; the war is hopeless on the battlefield, and the only hope of winning is to hope that the enemy will first run out of resources. The result will invariably be complete destruction of the loser and serious weakening of the winner.
The American Civil War was initiated under the presumption that it would be a quick and decisive engagement. By no means was it imagined just how long it would drag on, resulting in tens of thousands of casualties even for the most strategically insignificant of skirmishes such as at Gettysburg, and result in the absolute economic deconstruction of an entire region of the United States, resulting in an After the End scenario whose aftershocks continue to reverberate to this day.
In an actual example of this trope, the South was in a somewhat hopeless situation from the very start. They only really thought that they had a chance in the war because they believed that the UK would intervene in the war due to the importance of Southern United States cotton production (i.e. "King Cotton"), but the UK simply turned to its Indian colony and proceeded to ignore the war. The North was in control of the major industry of the United States, and had something on the order of 24:1 weapon supplies. The only real thing that kept them in serious contention during the war was their excellent military leadership, compared to the poor military leadership of the North, and the looting of guns after battles.
The last leg of World War II was a pretty good example for the Germans when you think about it. Whatever you say about them, the foot soldiers fought bravely till the bitter end against impossible odds. Any government likely would not go out and announce that they are losing, but pretty much everyone did know they had lost the war at that point. See also: Der Untergang. Compare this to the end of World War I, when the previous German government chose surrender when it became clear they could not win; sparing their country the ravages of a drawn-out war on their own soil, but also conceding to the harsh and humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles. The consequences of this decision created the environment in which the Nazi party rose to power.
And the German soldiers, especially on the Eastern Front, knew what was at stake if the Russians made it to their homes, especially considering what they had done on their advance East and the likely reponse. Several historians have suggested that the wisest course of action would have been for the Germans to surrender on the Western Front and throw everything to the East to keep the Russians out, but Hitler wouldn't hear of it until they were literally right outside the city. Those decisions doomed Eastern Europe and East Germany to nearly a half-century of Warsaw Pact oppression.
This wasn´t Hitler's fault, the Allies declared on the Casablanca Conference (January 1943) that they would not accept anything else than the full and unconditional surrender of Germany. It is even discussed that this claim has prolonged the war because why give up and end up as an occupied country if you can fight on, in the hope that it will pay off in the end?
It's undoubted that it prolonged the war. In fact, some Germans were seeking a treaty to end the war, but the problem is that, as unfortunate as it was, the Allies really had no choice but to accept only unconditional surrender, because everyone was in absolute agreement that Hitler and the Nazi Party had to be removed from power. You see, if there wasn't an unconditional surrender, then the Allies would be obliged to negotiate with the Nazis and treat them with the fairness that comes with a treaty, and consequently would be unable to demand that the Nazis be removed from power. An unconditional surrender was the only option and the leaders on both sides were well aware of it.
That and the Allies insisted on unconditional surrender to avoid the situation that had brought on Hitler in the first place — Ludendorff and Hindenburg, while acknowledging that the war was lost, essentially threw the issue of surrender/armistice to the fledgling civilian government (the nascent Weimar Republic). Later, they were able to convincingly argue that the Imperial German Army, which was still on French soil on November 11, 1918, had been the victim of a "stab-in-the-back" by the Weimar government, who according to the new narrative sued for peace while Germany could still win. The resentment engendered by this in many WWI veterans helped sweep Hitler to power. Therefore, the Allies wanted to make it clear and unambiguous that Germany it its entirety, both civil and military wings, had totally surrendered.
Similarly, the first, few successful years of Germany's Operation Barbarossa saw what ultimately boiled down to a German effort to annihilate all (or, at least, a majority) of human activity—institutions, agriculture, lives—of the western Soviet Union, in an effort to free up 'living space'. And in many respects, they came close: in four years, the USSR sustained on the lower-end estimation of 23 (and on the higher, 27) million war deaths—between 13 and 16 percent of the 1941 population, and more than any other nation. And while Hollywood movies tend to over-exaggerated historical conditions, the Red Army found itself facing the German offensive under-supplied, under-trained, and with the knowledge that those captured would more likely starve to death in enemy custody. As far as the rest of the world was concerned, that was a hopeless war—the turn-around came as a considerable surprise.
The cracks in the German strategy were showing up even during the initial offensive. The first Battle of Rostov proved that blitzkrieg couldn't deal with Russian weather and Russian counterattacks. Whether any significant portion of the Soviet army was aware of this is a different issue, however — it almost certainly seemed very hopeless at the time. Really, the war seemed quite hopeless to everybody right up until the end, prompting the first and only offensive use of nuclear weapons to ensure a definitive end.
Japan at the end of WWII. By the end, they were literally fighting the whole world. Germany had surrendered and Italy, along with others of Japan's allies, had pulled a Heel-Face Turn, leaving Japan to fight on alone against The Allies. This was the phase of the war that added the world 'Kamikaze' to the English language. Even after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, several generals had an audience with the Emperor wherein they demanded the right to fight on.
Here in the West, we're usually taught that the Japanese surrendered directly in response the atomic bombs. While certainly partly true, it isn't the whole story. The same day as the bombing of Nagasaki, the Soviet Union broke their neutrality pact with Japan and very quickly liberated Manchukuo, Mengjiang, Southern Sakhalin, the Kiril Islands, and North Korea. To elaborate on why the Soviet declaration of war on Japan was so important to push Japan to surrender, one needs to understand the mentality of Japan at the time. Early in the war, Japan was expecting to rapidly conquer new territory, come into conflict with the United States note the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which is often viewed by Americans with complete bafflement at why exactly they would do such a thing when it would obviously bring America into the war, was executed because Japan figured that conflict with America was unavoidable, and they might as well use a surprise attack to delay American Naval action for as long as possible, and end the war through a settlement that would allow them to keep at least a little bit of their conquered land, and would give them a net gain of territory, even if small. Even at the end of the war, when it was obviously going very badly for the Japanese, many in the Japanese government were still hoping for some sort of settlement that would still gain them at least a little bit of land. In addition to this, there were two primary camps in Japanese mentality: the 'diplomatic camp' which sought to negotiate with the then-neutral Soviet Union to mediate a treaty with the other Allies, and the 'war camp' which had hoped to inflict so many casualties on the Allies that they would accept a treaty more favorable to Japan. The Soviet Union's declaration of war on Japan did two things to change the minds of the Japanese: the rapid liberation of occupied territory at the hand of the Soviets made it look a lot less likely that they would be able to gain any land if the war were to continue, and since the Soviet Union was now at war with Japan, they would be unavailable for mediating a treaty with the other Allies. This broke any hope for the 'diplomatic camp' that the Soviets would help them acquire a more favorable treaty, pushing them towards surrender, and even the 'war camp' was rapidly losing their reason to fight, as it was quickly becoming apparent that they would not be able to keep anything after the war.
It goes beyond that. Japan, with less than 3% of pre-war world GDP, was fighting two nation-states (Britain, the USSR) that accounted for 10% of world GDP each and one (the USA) that accounted for nearly half. The starvation of several (tens of) millions of the country's citizens was only very narrowly averted in the months following surrender by the importation of massive food stocks from the outside world.
Tragically, this will to fight on in a hopeless situation caused the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. By all accounts, the Japanese had exactly no chance whatsoever of winning the war, or averting anything other than total defeat, but their bitter intention of continuing the war regardless caused thousands of people to die in battles that didn't have to happen, and further caused thousands more to die in the atomic bombings.
The Iran–Iraq War of the 1980s, a decade long stalemate with Saddam Hussein on one side and a hardline theocracy on the other side. It really says something that Saddam came out the moral victor: Iran used human wave tactics that far exceeded WWI in their pointlessness. Minefield blocking your way? Recruit a bunch of teenagers (Sometimes not even that) give them little plastic 'Keys to Heaven' and make them run across the minefield barefoot.
A very close victory when you consider Saddam's rather liberal use of chemical weapons on civilian populations, including his own.
Out of all the wars listed in this section, only the Somalian one could possibly have a bleaker outcome than the Iran-Iraq War. (Concerning present-day matters, of course.)
The Bosnian War was this for the Bosniaks until 1994. After being abandoned by Serbia and the combined Bosniak-Croat offensive it briefly became this for the Republika Srpska with a little subversion: The Bosnian Serbs returned in time to the negotiation table and got the best outcome of the war.
In The Vietnam War, the U.S. goal was to go to Vietnam, kick Viet Cong ass and be home in time for corn flakes. Unfortunately the Viet Cong proved to be more resilient and determined than expected, displaying arguably the greatest guerrilla fighting force in history, and thus dragging out the war despite the horrific casualties they suffered.
The tragedy ultimately outlasted the war and the American defeat. The fallout would give the world the two bleakest phrases of the later 20th century - 'The Killing Fields' and 'The Boat People'. Ironically, it would be Vietnam that would oust the Khmer Rouge and stand against the advance of Chinese communism in South East Asia.
Even worse is the fact Kissinger and Nixon knew the war was lost as early as 1971, but prolonged it anyway, extending it into neutral countries like Cambodia and Laos. See this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQ3LIqzR6-Q
The civil war in Somalia has lasted for 20 years now and shows no sign of stopping. The saddest part is that world governments deployed the might of their navies to curb a side effect, ocean piracy, and turn a blind eye to the disease - the genocidal warlords, the unchecked pandemics, the poverty and one of the bleakest and most chronic famines that the world has ever seen.
Sounds like an attempt to avoid this trope, actually.
Not to mention that it's more a subversion. Don't forget that the United States and Ethiopia both led different interventions into the country to try and stabilize it, the U.S. from 1993 to 1995 and Ethiopia from 2006 to 2009. The world governemnts have tried to treat the disease, and it just hasn't worked.
Probably because the world governments dragged their feet in the beginning. By the time they acted it was too little too late.
Great Sioux War of 1876-77
Particularly the Battle of the Little Bighorn
Attempts by native populations to resist European colonization were usually hopeless, given the Europeans' technological edge and their introduction of new diseases.
The Battle of Thermopylae, long remembered as one of history's greatest Last Stands. King Leonidas, his 300 Spartans, and their allies knew that they would not win against the massive army of the Persian Empire, but their sacrifice held the Persians back just long enough for the other Greeks to mobilize against them proper.
And if they had held there, the Naval fleet at Artemisium would have kept fighting the hopeless battle against the larger fleet. It was only retreating to Salamis that they were able to turn the tables.
The War of the Triple Alliance. Paraguay decided that it would be a good idea to invade Brazil and crushed their army. Then, as if that wasn't enough, they went to war with Argentina and Uruguay at the same time. Paraguay won early victories, but ground down over six years.The war only ended with the complete conquest of Paraguay by the Alliance and the death of their dictator. Over half of the prewar population of Paraguay died before they finally surrendered.
It got to the point where the Roman Catholic Church decided to allow polygyny (the "multiple wife" type of polygamy) because so many men had died there weren't enough husbands.
The Arab-Israeli Conflict, for both sides. The idea that Israel could ever be decisively defeated militarily is laughable, the fate of the Gaza strip is a prime example. On the other hand, Israel can not maintain the current status quo forever, Jewish birth rates are far lower than Muslims, the 'Demographic Bomb' that Right Wing politicians have warned about is very real, by 2050, Jews will be a minority in their own land, from then Israel will truly feel besieged. The obvious solution is of course, an end to the conflict - the 'Two State Solution', but that has been a Hopeless War all in by itself.
The conflict between South and North Korea, which has not officially ended since the beginning of the Korean War. For the forseeable future, both countries are locked in an eternal stalemate, constantly fearing an attack by the other nation. South Korea doesn't want to attack because of North Korea's massive army while North Korea won't attack due to South Korea's massive technological advantage (and rather large army). Not to mention, the United States and China are guaranteed to back their respective allies should hostilities break out. Finally, the ideological differences and stubborness of both sides means a peaceful solution won't be likely either.
If it came to it, the South will probably win. Chinese support for the North is far from certain, and the US is not likely to support Southern aggression either. The South can rapidly build up its military, but the North cannot rapidly close the technological gap.
It would, however, be a Pyrrhic Victory in many respects. North Korea has the capability to demolish Seoul, which boasts a population of 10 million (making it the eighth-largest in the world) and is the political and economic heart of the nation, purely through liberal use of fifty years worth of fortified artillery. More than that, attempting to integrate the hopelessly backwards North Korean nation would cripple the South Korean economy to a degree that would make the German post-reunification economic issues look like a mild economic blip. Some admittedly pessimistic estimates put civilian casualties in the first days of any shooting war on the peninsula at upwards of 2 million.
It's to the point that any saber rattling, such as when North Korea shelled several ships in late 2010, makes the world stop, look at the Korean Peninsula with fear, and then hope that it doesn't escalate. However, there is a Hope Spot: China has come out and told the North Korean government to calm the hell down, a massive shift in policy between the two traditional allies with the suggestion that China is coming to believe that having the Hermit Kingdom as a buffer state against the US' allies is not worth the trouble.
China has, as Wikileaks, discovered it was more than prepared and willing to have Seoul in command of the Korean Peninsula over Pyongyang. Not only that, its getting ready for an inevitable intervention now since 'Fattycakes' as the new Leader is called is threatening to launch a nuke on the US or its allies.
The Western Front of World War I seemed like this for years. There were great offensives on both sides, millions died, but the front lines didn't move.
Largely true, but this aspect of it has been Flanderized.
Technically speaking, any war declared on a concept or item (drugs, terrorism, etc) is doomed to failure before it even begins. For example, the war on terror can't be won, because terrorism is a tactic used by stateless groups too decentralized to ever sign formal articles of surrender, while "terror" is an emotion.
Afghanistan; especially after the Wiki Leak files made it seem bleaker.
There's a reason it's known as the "Graveyard of Empires."
The Italian front of World War I. For the Italians, because their officers would continuously send them attacking well-fortified Austro-Hungarian positions uphill in the face of large artillery and machine gun concentrations. For the Austro-Hungarians, because no matter how many Italians died in futile attacks, they could replenish their losses (in fact the Italian commander in chief Cadorna, knowing that his army was underequipped due endemic corruption in the bureaucracy and the only previous commander in chief who understood modern weapons died of heart attack before he could make any impact, was counting on this) while the Austrians couldn't, and Italian artillery was superior and growing. Then, thanks to the Russian collapse freeing up the troops from the Eastern front and temporary German help in the form of assault troops, the Austro-Hungarians broke through Italian lines atCaporetto... And things got even worse, for them: the Germans were transferred on the Western front, the part of the offensive sent to occupy the area with most of the Italian weapon factories was obliterated on the Grappa massif by a ludicrous concentration of artillery even for Italian standards placed there exactly for that purpose, the Italians may have been at their limit of manpower but were still more numerous and, as they were now fighting for the defence of their country, had suddenly started to fight like demons, Cadorna, who was incompetent as a field commander, had been replaced by the more versatile Armando Diaz, Italian special forces started being everywhere (they even dropped leaflets on Vienna itself just to prove they could have bombed the city), and Austria-Hungary had exhausted their reserves.